- The September Issue
Directed by R.J. Cutler
With: Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington
Warming to Ms. Wintour
In an era where paper is wasteful and ink is expensive, a five-pound issue of Vogue seems excessive. But fashion has always pushed the limits of affordability and practicality. And perhaps no one is more responsible for the priorities of this 300-billion-dollar industry than Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue and the stoic but stunning subject of The September Issue.
From pink to black and from Paris to Bryant Park, this flashy documentary by R.J. Cutler (The War Room) lets us peep behind the veil of Vogue and glimpse into both the goblins and the glory of glamour. Following the magazine’s steadfast fury to produce its largest page-count ever in 2007 (a whopping 840), we see what it takes to work for a high-end fashion publication, but more importantly we get a portrait of the ice-queen in charge.
Unfortunately, Wintour’s reputation as the boss from hell prevails over any respect for her editorial talent and entrepreneurial success. Her Cruella de Vil calousness was largely popularized by Lauren Weisberger, former assistant to Wintour, in her novel The Devil Wears Prada. The book garnered mixed reviews, but, nonetheless, was followed by a commercially successful film adaptation in 2006 starring Meryl Streep as the Wintour-based character. Now the feminine fur-wearing stiletto-stomping sadist is an all-too-familiar symbol of unruly expectations and over-the-top demands in the garment world.
The September Issue attempts to dispel this myth and present a more approachable face to fashion. With an elegant directness, Wintour crafts her defensive response to critics of the industry: “People are frightened of fashion. Because it scares them or makes them nervous, they put it down.”
Through interviews with Wintour, but more intimately with her closest (and most defiant) co-worker, creative director Grace Coddington, insights unravel the tightly woven threads of this industry. A former model from North Wales, Coddington recalls the day her career was cut short by a car accident. Without a bit of sentimental sappiness, she matter-of-factly walks us through her years on staff at British Vogue and smiles slyly from memories of the day she began working at American Vogue. That also happened to be Wintour’s first day and the first day of a relationship that has spanned over two decades. Ups and downs aside, their relationship is sealed in mutual respect.
Coddington quite frankly steals the spotlight from Wintour in many moments of this documentary because of her openness and willingness to show her vulnerability. Throughout the film Wintour largely remains a distant figurehead (probably at her command), as we simultaneously get in-depth exposure to Coddington’s nostalgic fantasies for the past in a profession that’s not about looking back but about looking forward. Her wild red hair blows in and out of the visually lush scenes during a photoshoot at Versailles while Wintour’s ossified bob helps to conceal the parts of her visage that the sunglasses do not.
“I don’t find her hidden,” says Vogue publisher Tom Florio, “I just don’t find her accessible to people she doesn’t need to be accessible to. She’s busy—she’s not warm and friendly.”
We see a somewhat softer side of Wintour when introduced to her daughter, Bee. Like a fly on the wall, we are taken into their Hampton home one summer afternoon as Wintour asks Bee’s opinion of various spreads for Vogue’s upcoming September issue. Like her mother, Bee is decisive. She knows what works and what doesn’t work. And she knows what’s for her and what isn’t. This ambitious young woman has more interest in law than in fashion. Although Wintour listens to Bee’s critical commentary (“It’s a really weird industry.”) with Victorian poise, her subtle eye movements to the left and to the right spell out disappointment that the editorial dynasty from which she came won’t continue through her own offspring.
Even without a designated successor, Vogue will always be under the influence of Anna Wintour. In The September Issue, Cutler chooses not to tell the history of Wintour’s influence over Vogue, but to more effectively show it by including vérité-style scenes of Wintour in meetings with designers. There we see the potency of her presence, intimidating even for established fashion icons like Yves Saint Laurent. As she peruses the upcoming collections, the pieces are either too black or too bland. In a world where Coddington complains everybody’s “too perfect,” nothing seems to be perfect enough for Wintour.
Despite the less-than-pleasant legacy of Anna Wintour, there’s a sweetness to her shrewdness and an elegance to her evasiveness. Her critical eyes, her Chanel suits, her calculated entrances and exits through the glass doors of Vogue headquarters—these shots that pause on her body language and expressions are what make The September Issue shine as a character study even if by the end of it we don’t feel much closer to Ms. Wintour than we did at the beginning.
Brenna Fitzgerald has a BA in history from Cornell University and an MA in critical studies from the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. She teaches yoga and writes film reviews in NYC.